Administration restoring asset seizures, with new safeguards
Forfeiture laws were curtailed under Obama, intending to prevent abuse
WASHINGTON» The Trump administration will soon restore the ability of police to seize suspects’ money and property with federal help, but The Associated Press has learned the policy will come with a series of new provisions aimed at preventing the types of abuse that led the Obama Justice Department to severely curtail the practice.
At issue is asset forfeiture, which has been criticized because it allows law enforcement to take possessions without criminal convictions or, in some cases, indictments. The policy to be rolled out Wednesday targets socalled adoptive forfeiture, which lets local authorities circumvent more-restrictive state laws to seize property under federal law. The proceeds are then shared with federal counterparts.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder significantly limited the practice in response to criticism that it was ripe for abuse, particularly with police seizures of small amounts of cash. Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to ease those restrictions but also impose new requirements on when federal law can be used, a senior Justice Department official briefed on the policy said Tuesday.
The official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to discuss the changes before their unveiling.
Key changes include requiring more detail from police agencies about probable cause justifying a seizure before federal authorities get involved. Also, the Justice Department will have to decide more quickly whether to take on local seizures and let property owners know their rights and the status of their belongings within 45 days of the seizure, faster than federal law requires.
Another key change will make it harder for police to seize less than $10,000 unless they have a state warrant, have made an arrest related to the seizure, have taken other contraband, such as drugs, along with the money or the owner has confessed to a crime. Without at least one of those conditions, authorities will need a federal prosecutor’s approval to seize it under federal law.
Old rules set that threshold at $5,000, the official said. The old process rarely required a federal prosecutor’s sign-off, said Stefan Cassella, a former federal prosecutor and expert on asset forfeiture and money laundering law.
Sessions’ support for asset forfeiture more is in keeping with his tough-oncrime agenda and aligns with his oft-stated view that the Justice Department’s top priority should be helping local law enforcement fight violent crime. Police departments use the seizures for expenses, and some agencies felt Holder’s restrictions left them without a critical funding source. When he forecast the rollback of the Holder provision at a conference of district attorneys, the announcement drew applause.
But an embrace of asset forfeiture follows bipartisan efforts to overhaul the practice, and as a growing number of states have made their own laws limiting its use.
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who sponsored legislation this year to tightly regulate asset forfeiture, said Sessions’ move is “a troubling step backward” that would “bring back a loophole that’s become one of the most flagrantly abused provisions of this policy.”
“Criminals shouldn’t be able to keep the proceeds of their crime, but innocent Americans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen,” he said.